September is the month when children return to the hallowed halls of education to rejoin their friends for another nine months of lessons. No matter my age, I still feel the urge for back-to-school preparations. The arrival of September brings with it a sense of urgency. It feels like a time of renewal or the beginning of a new cycle.

I grew up on the outskirts of a small town in Norfolk County, an area in southern Ontario. A shivering cold early morning roadside wait for the school bus is how the day began. It was a 45 minute trip to school and I was the first picked up and last dropped off. The bus wound its way through country side roads, through hamlets, and past barking farm dogs racing through ditches. I’ll also mention here that I have motion sickness issues and leave you to fill in the blanks.

The kindergarten program I attended in the village of Courtland was one of the first in our area. In the photo above, I am the child wearing the turquoise blouse and standing next to the teacher. I have a strong recollection of napping on mats in a darkened community room. Miss Anderson was our teacher. I remember her swatting my bottom when I tarried in the play area instead of coming to story time as I’d been instructed. No grudges. It was a sign of the time.

Gwen in first grade

The next school I attended was called The Goshen Junior Public School. My day was very different from the ones experienced by my own twenty-something children and the neighbourhood children who pass my house on their way to elementary school.

The Goshen Road school  had three classrooms: one for grades one and two, three and four, five and six. I do recall a few names. Mr. Abbey was our principal, Mrs. Howey taught the youngest children. Miss Maxwell was my third grade teacher. My strongest memory of that year was playing multiplication baseball. The multiplication tables were rehearsed religiously. After all, calculators weren’t common place and the emphasis was on rote learning.

When I first attended the school, there was a library in the basement. The younger children gripped the handrail and made their way down the steep stairs. The basement library felt ominous for reasons I can’t recall. It was replaced by visits from the Bookmobile, a purple transport truck and trailer transformed into a travelling library. We were all very excited on book day. To sign out a book was such a treat. This is a feeling that remains with me today.

Third grade teacher and Bookmobile librarian at The Goshen Junior Public School

Recesses were great fun. Our playground was surrounded on three sides by cow pastures and the fence rows were lined with milkweed. Many is the recess I spent petting cows’ soft muzzles. We’d open milkweed pods and blow fluff into the air. Another popular pastime was the hunt for puff balls. In nice weather, we played wall ball and jump rope.

In the winter, we brought our skates to school. The yard was full of depressions that filled with water and froze over. The older children coerced the younger students to lie down on the ice shoulder to shoulder like a row of logs. The older children would skate toward them, picking up speed, then jump over them. I cringe at the memory of this. Where were the teachers? They sat inside a picture window sharing cigarettes. If there was a glaring behaviour issue, they banged  on the window to get our attention, and the behaviour ended. It was a different place and time. The expectation for obedience was high and compliance was immediate. When the strap was meted out as punishment, we could all hear the crying because the school was small.

Report cards were produced on typewriters. I have some that were written out by hand.

In those days, we all wore rubber galoshes pulled on over our shoes. Our boots needed to be lined up perfectly, heels against the wall. It was very common to come to the hallway at the end of the school day only to discover that your boots were missing. The principal checked for tidiness when we’d returned to class after last recess. If the boots had toppled over or were left carelessly out-of-order, he tossed them in a snow bank in front of the school. When children complained, parents replied “Well, you won’t do that again. There are rules for a reason.” I can’t help thinking that the response would be quite different were that to happen today.

As I write this morning, I’m thinking indeed of the cycle mentioned in the beginning of this piece. I was unable to find online photos of the schools I mentioned, and so I assume they’ve been torn down. I used to walk my three children down our street — issuing reminders, asking about their friends, and doling out farewells when we reached the playground. The school they attended is closed down and stands vacant at the end of our street. My children are beginning to make statements that begin with, “Kids today …”.

I watch the young parents who walk past my house on crisp mornings, sipping coffee from travel mugs. Some chat on their cell phones or listen to their Ipods while the children dash ahead on the sidewalk, eager to reach the school yard. Their cycle is beginning and mine has ended. I wonder what stories they’ll tell one day.

Grade 4 report card comment

Do you have school days memories to share? 

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.